Company Failed to Detect Santa Barbara Oil Spill: Regulators

The spill last year is blamed for killing hundreds of birds and marine mammals

Regulators have completed an investigation into a pipeline break that spilled more than 140,000 gallons of crude oil on the California coast a year ago, according to federal officials.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a final report Thursday afternoon detailing the cause of the spill that closed popular beaches and is blamed for killing hundreds of birds and marine mammals. The company did not do enough to prevent pipeline corrosion and its operators failed to detect the spill quickly enough, federal regulators with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said.

The agency previously said severe corrosion on the pipe owned by Plains All American Pipeline led to a 6-inch gash in the 2-foot-wide pipe and caused the spill, but the final report provides more details. Plains All American Pipeline did not have adequate systems to detect the leak, according to the agency.

Plains, which remotely operated the pipeline from a control center in Midland, Texas, did not initially detect the spill after a series of pump failures and a severe drop in pressure on the pipeline eventually led to a shut down. The federal agency said alarms that should have been triggered by changes in pressure didn't sound to alert staff to a problem and the control room didn't realize there was a leak.

The controller even restarted the line after the spill occurred.

The leak was discovered after firefighters responding to reports of a petroleum stench found oil spilling from a ravine onto Refugio State Beach, a pristine and popular park for swimming and camping.

The report comes on the anniversary of the spill. 

Texas-based Plains was indicted this week on dozens of criminal charges in Santa Barbara Superior Court. The company apologized for the spill and said it was an accident that does not merit criminal charges.

"We will vigorously defend ourselves against these charges and are confident we will demonstrate that the charges have no merit and represent an inappropriate attempt to criminalize an unfortunate accident," the company said.

The spill was the largest on the U.S. coast since the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon explosion. While the Plains spill was just a fraction of the size of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 workers and spilled millions of gallons, it happened on hallowed ground for environmentalists.

A blowout on an offshore rig in the Santa Barbara channel in 1969 blackened the shores and gave rise to the environmental movement, which is frequently at odds with the oil industry's presence throughout the area.

"The Santa Barbara community has dedicated itself to learning from that (1969) tragedy and working to ensure it does not happen again," Rep. Lois Capps, D-California, said. "As we know, no community is immune. And 46 years later, I found myself once again witnessing the devastation of an oil spill on the Central Coast, this time at Refugio Beach."

Plains could still face federal criminal charges for the spill that is expected to cost the company $269 million, according to the company's annual report.

Multiple class-action lawsuits from landowners, fishermen and business owners who say the spill crippled a thriving tourism industry are still pending. Some investors have filed suit alleging they were misled about the integrity of company pipelines.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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